September 2004, my teammate and I headed from the U.S. to an unreached people group living in the Himalaya Mountains. Due to the extreme violence that both workers and new believers have faced, I will refer to them as the Sweater People and testify how I saw God’s story touch their hearts.
Our goal was to live among the Sweater People, learn about them, and love them. We were to find a person of peace who would help us develop a Chronological Bible Story Set which would both touch the hearts and needs of the Sweater People and give them a biblical worldview.
The story set would be in their language and style. It would direct them in following Christ and what it means to be the Church. Every story was to be biblically sound, understandable to the average person, and easily remembered and passed on from one person to another. We also wanted to see these stories used in starting evangelistic groups among the Muslim Sweater People and the planting of house churches.
Bible storying is the ideal tool to reach the Sweater People because Sweater language is only spoken and has no written alphabet. They love to sing and tell stories. Some of the songs they sing are new, but many have been passed down from generation to generation. Nearly all of their songs are about love, where they live, and God. Their stories could have happened that day or a hundred years ago. Along with singing and storytelling, the Sweater People love to watch television and listen to the radio. All of these forms of oral communication can be used in telling this people group the stories from the Bible.
- Their home sits in a valley surrounded by the Himalayan Mountains. You can almost picture Moses going up to a mountain to talk to God or a Psalmist singing about the mountains God created.
- The political situation could be perceived as similar to Israel’s situation during the time of Jesus’ birth. The Sweater People believe they are a chosen people under the rule of pagan idolaters. This could be seen as similar to Israel being under the rule of the Romans.
- There are also temples and shrines for worshiping Hindu gods or Muslim saints in their area. There are many places in the Bible where pagan temples were a part of the culture.
- Most of the Sweater People carry out the same occupations as those in the Bible. Eighty percent are farmers. The rest are shepherds, government workers, fishermen, shopkeepers, and homemakers.
- The majority of the people are named after prophets found in the Bible. Their names are in the Arabic form. Since many of the people of this area cannot read, they do not know about the prophet they are named after. This is a great bridge to use in sharing God’s word.
- The women have some of the same issues as the women in the Bible (e.g., infertility, loss of a husband, and the feeling of hopelessness).
To reach out to the Sweater women, we decided the best way to communicate God’s word would be through Bible stories to which the women could relate. We created a story set that would touch the lives of the Sweater women as well as reach out to the men.
The Sweater People are considered unreached. There are over ten million people living in their area: 95% are Muslim, 4% are Hindu, and only 1% are Christian.
Much of the news about this people group calls them terrorists. In recent years, Islamic violence has grown rapidly, causing most of the Hindus who have lived here to either leave or be killed. Christians have put their lives in God’s hands as they have gone out to share the gospel. Violence is an everyday occurrence here, but most of the Sweater People are incredibly loving. There are just a few hate-filled radicals who have wreaked havoc on those living here. When we arrived to our location we were excited, but a bit overwhelmed at the task. The Sweater People live in a war zone. Tanks and army bunkers line the streets. The airport we flew into was painted camouflage.
I must admit I was filled with apprehension and fear, but God’s word spoke to me. Proverbs 3:5-6 says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on you own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” I prayed, “God you are in control of my life. Lead me and I will follow.”
We began meeting all the missionaries in the area and sharing our project idea with them. They were very encouraging and went to great lengths to help us. During the time we were there, we were able to train most of the teams in Bible storying. We asked the teams to help us find a Sweater Woman to help us with this project. Most did not know any Sweater women who had come to Christ. Many men had become followers of Christ because they could read the Bible in the trade language, but their wives did not become followers of Christ.
However, a pastor introduced us to one woman named Nargis. She had become a follower of Christ shortly before we got there. Nargis was a beautiful girl who loved to sing. She had a great desire to learn God’s word and help us. However, shortly after meeting her, she was kidnapped, raped, and forced to marry a Muslim man. We met her again after her marriage. She told us that she had not given up on following Christ and she would hold tight to the stories about Jesus. The marriage was her lot in life. This was a heart-breaking situation. We couldn’t rescue her and the only hope we could give her was the hope Jesus gave to women in the Bible. We rallied many people to pray for her.
The last we heard of Nargis was that one day she was singing a Christian song in the trade language and her husband heard it. He was struck by how beautiful the song was and he asked her to explain it to him. She did and then told him the Bible stories she knew. This piqued his interest and he went to the pastor who had led her to Christ and asked for a Bible.
We had girls help us record 47 stories from the Bible in order from Creation to the formation of the Church. Our helper’s family loved the stories from the Bible and one night I watched as she shared the story of the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears. When her father heard this story, he cried. Her mother, who had no education, also shared the stories her daughter taught her with Muslim neighbors.
As we went in chronological order, they waited expectantly to discover what was going to happen to Eve after Cain killed Abel. Would Abraham have a child at such an old age?
The storytelling girls worked with an ethnomusicologist to write the first Sweater worship songs. What a refreshing sound to hear songs about life and hope in comparison to the death and sorrow songs! Rubina and the storytelling girls and some of their family members began meeting as a church. After they learned stories, they began to take communion, give offerings, pray, learn a new story each week, and sing a new worship song they had written. However, there seemed to always be obstacles.
In fact, the more they would try to meet, the more conflicts would arise. First, they had a record snowfall of 15 feet and an avalanche that cut the Sweater People off from the rest of the world. Then, they had a flood. Then, there was an earthquake and aftershocks that left a million people homeless with everyone sleeping outside in fear their houses could collapse. Then, several family members died.
After this, the storytelling girls were accused of converting to Christianity (against the law in this area.) Our helper came to my house with a stack of Christian literature that we had given her and the girls. She said, “If the police find this in my house, my family and I will go to jail.” Then she said, “Don’t worry about me and the rest of the girls, we know 47 stories from the Bible. They can’t take this from us and we will share them.” She then told me the story of how Jesus calmed the storm. “If Jesus could control the wind and the waves, he could care for us also.”
Unfortunately, we didn’t see the storytelling girls become a sustainable church, but we did receive reports that other missionaries were able to use the stories and start groups that did become churches.
Most people didn’t come to Christ, but God allowed us be the first Christians they ever met. We were also blessed in seeing the Sweater People hear and share God’s word in their own language. This task was not easy as I struggled with illness and depression. It was hard to live in such darkness and not be affected by it. In the midst of it all, God proved his love and faithfulness to me.
Even today, Sweater Christians and missionaries are under extreme persecution. Reports by the news media of Sweater People coming to Christ are causing riots. Many believers have been beaten and forced to flee. Islamic extremist are calling for Sharia Law to be placed over the Sweater People. This could mean the execution of any Sweater convert and any person who led that person to Christ. Please pray that the Sweater believers will stand strong in the hope and faithfulness of Christ’s love.
Amber [pseudonym] and her husband currently serve difficult to reach high caste Indians living in the USA.